I started researching my family history in Caroline County, Virginia in 2004. I was frustrated by the dearth of information on African Americans. As I talked to African Americans in the community I would hear interesting stories of their lives growing up in the county. As I listened to their stories, I would often think what interesting information it was and that someone should preserve it.
In 2009 I decided to become that someone and take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where my ancestors lived. My first project would be to preserve the history of Union High School – Caroline County’s only secondary school for Negroes during the era of segregation.
I knew nothing about the school and had never written a book; however, I decided to take on the challenge. Once I began to spread the word about the Union High History Project many people were eager to participate. The result of the project is a book titled Memories of Union High: An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia, 1903-1969. The book available at amazon.com and my website.
In addition to writing a book, I have collected a large amount of Union High memorabilia and ephemera including hundreds of photographs, a complete set of yearbooks, commencement programs and school newspapers. I plan to donate these items to libraries and historical archives. Because of the collaborative efforts of numerous ordinary people, the history of Union High School has been preserved for posterity.
You many not want to take on the monumental task of writing a book. Here are some ways you can help preserve local history on a smaller scale:
- Donate items to libraries, historical archives and genealogy societies. When going through family members’ belongings, save old documents, papers, photographs, memorabilia and ephemera and donate them to a local library or archives. A lot of historical items are classified as junk and thrown away because the person who is cleaning out an elderly or deceased person’s home is not mindful of the significance of the items.
I urge people to donate original items on a regular basis and keep copies for their records. Using this method, you or your family members will not be faced with the daunting task of sorting through a large amount of information years later. You don’t have to organize the items just put them in a box and take them to the organization. Some organizations may even send staff to your house to retrieve the items if you have a large amount of information.
L. R. “Jack” Davis, the funeral director of Davis Funeral Home (which later became Storke Funeral Home) in Bowling Green, VA, was responsible for moving graves after the government purchased land in Caroline County, to establish the AP Hill military reservation. Mr. Davis kept very detailed records in a 250+ page document which provides information of the location of graves before and after the move.
Many years later, his daughter made copies of the document and distributed it to libraries and the Caroline County historical society. This document is an excellent resource for anyone performing genealogy research in Caroline County. Because of the generosity of Mr. Davis’ daughter, numerous family historians and genealogist have been able to obtain valuable information about their ancestors.
- Write articles for newsletters. As I research my family history I also collect information about the communities in which they lived and the organizations in which they were members. I have written several articles for the Caroline Historical Society newsletter in order to share this information.
- Create a website or blog. I acquired several documents from the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Office that continued valuable information about the people who lived in the community prior to the establishment of the military reservation. I uploaded the documents to my website to make them more accessible. I have been contacted by people all over the world who were very grateful for this information being on the internet since it was not feasible for them to travel to Caroline County to perform research. Some information may be copyrighted so be sure to get permission from the owner before you post any information and documents on the internet.
- Give speeches and make presentations. I have made several presentations on the subject of researching, documenting and preserving local history. I share my experience from the Union High History Project and give tools and tips for preserving local history.
- Share research strategies and information with staff at libraries and historical archives. Performing genealogy research for African Americans can be a frustrating experience, especially when researching our ancestors who were enslaved. Because slaves were considered property, the traditional methods for performing genealogy research can not be followed.
I frequently perform research at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The staff is very friendly and helpful. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with several staff members who inquired about my research. I told them I was searching through documents about my ancestor’s deceased slave owner (Elijah Wigglesworth) to learn more about my ancestors. I explained how I had to research my ancestor’s slave owner family in addition to my own
family in order locate my ancestors. I showed them how my ancestors were listed in the Inventory and Appraisement of the slave owner’s estate, and how the document showing the distribution of his estate showed my great great grandparents family being separated when the slave owner’s estate was divide among his wife and children. I then explained how I had to search for slaves in wills, inventories, and other court documents for each of the new slave owners to trace my ancestors’ movement during the slavery.
I pointed out that since the names of the slaves were not provided on the summary for documents in the collection I had to spend hours reading through documents in hopes of finding information on my ancestors. They agreed this was not an easy task since many times the documents were handwritten with poor or fancy penmanship, faded and very difficult to read.
Once the CRHC understood the research strategy they began including the slave names on the summary for documents in the collection that is published on the CRHC website. I find most staff at libraries and archives are very helpful and open to suggestions. I recommend that you share your research strategies and ideas whenever you have a suggestion for improvement.
- Participate in activities to preserve the history of the communities you are researching. In 2007, the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division initiated the AP Hill Oral History Project to preserve the history of the communities that existed before military reservation was established. I was one of several individuals hired to interview people who had lived in the community. The end result of the project was a book titled Wealthy At Heart: Oral History of Life Before AP Hill.
Although I live over 100 miles from Caroline County, I was still able to contribute to the project by interviewing former residents who lived near me. All interviewers were required to take an oral history training class. Therefore, not only did I help preserve the history of the community where my ancestors lived, I also learned techniques for performing oral history research that I still use today.
- Support genealogy and historical societies. Most genealogy and historical societies rely heavily on volunteers and donations. I urge you to volunteer at the genealogy and historical societies where you perform research, become a member and make financial donations.
Preserving local history is not just the responsibility of professional historians. It must start with the ordinary people who live, work and have an interest in the community. I urge you to follow the above steps to help preserve the history of the communities where you and your ancestors lived.
If you read my Genealogy Envy post , you know that I am always complaining that my family is boring. Yesterday, I thought the genealogy gods had smiled on me and given me a breakthrough. It turns out that would not be the case, but I thought I would share my adventure.
On Saturday, November 19th, I attended a meeting at the Central Maryland Chapter of AAHGS. Angela Walton-Raji , gave a very informative presentation on the Best Internet Resources for African American Genealogy Research. After leaving the meeting I was inspired to visit some of the sites she mentioned. I have not been working on my family history for the past two years, because I have been doing research for a book I am writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia.
I decided to search FamilySearch.org for my 3rd great grandfather, Sancho Shakespeare. I had searched the website in the past but had not found much information. To my surprise I found an entry in the Ohio Death records for Martha Lewis who died in 1914. She was born in Virginia and her father was Sancho Shakespeare and her mother was Lucinda. I got excited because there was a link to view the death certificate for FREE. With the exception of her mother’s last name, all of the information was what I expected. Unfortunately, the death certificate did not have an informant.
Martha Shakespeare is the sister of my 2nd great grandmother Louisa Shakespeare. Everything I found out about her has been by accident. She is listed in the Freedman’s Bureau Register of Colored Persons of Caroline County, State of Virginia, cohabitating together and husband and wife on 27th February, 1866 as one of the children of my 3rd great grandparents, Sancho and Lucinda Shakespeare. She is also in the 1870 census with them. After that I could not find her. So I stopped looking for her.
After a few years I found her marriage license by accident when I was searching the Central Rappahannock Heritage database for my great 3rd great grandfather, Sancho Shakespeare. She married Arthur Lewis. This was her second marriage because she is listed as a widow and her name is Martha Hart. I found Arthur and Martha Lewis in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census in Washington, DC that I thought were them, but could not find anything else. So I stopped looking.
My new find on FamilySearch.org let me know that Martha and Arthur had moved to Ohio. I started searching the census in Ohio and found her and her husband in the 1910 Hamilton County Cincinnati Ohio census living in the household of John W. Merritt. John’s wife was Ella Merritt. Martha was listed as John’s sister-in law and her husband was listed as John’s brother in law. Since John’s wife was born in Virginia and Arthur was born in Virginia, I guessed that Arthur was Ella’s brother.
Arthur continued to live with the Merritts in the 1920 census. However, in the 1930 census he was a boarder in the household of Gertrude Anderson. I wondered what happened to the Merritts. Further research in FamilySearch.org showed that Arthur Lewis died in 1935 in Cincinnati OH. I retrieved his death certificate and saw the informant was Ella Merritt who was living in Chicago Illinois. That solved the mystery of what happened to the Merritts.
I looked for the Merritts in the Chicago, Illinois and found them in the 1930 census. John and Ella were living in Cook County Chicago Illinois. Their adult children: William, Arthur D. and Lenora were living with them.
I continued to search for the Merritt’s in Illinois. Ella died in 1945. Her son, Arthur died in 1969. The social security death index in Ancestry.com had a link from the record to the Cook County, Illinois website which has a lot of their vital records online. Each record can be accessed for $15 plus a $1.75 fee. I didn’t want to spend $30+, so I took a gamble and purchased Arthur’s death certificate since he died more recently. I was hoping I could use the informant on the death certificate to locate a living descendant. I paid the fee and retrieved his death certificate. Much to my chagrin, the informant was the Admitting Clerk at Mercer Medical Center. I WASTED my hard earned $16.75.
Arthur and Martha did not have any children that I could tell. (The census says Martha has one living child, but he/she is never living with them.) I was hoping to trace the Merritts to a living descendant and find out more about my Shakespeare ancestors. But that trail ran cold because all of their children never married, never had any children, and lived with their parents forever!!!!!
So now I am stuck again!!!!! My genealogy luck stinks. :(
But on a positive note, I did learn that FamilySearch.org is a great research tool.
My mother is the person who piqued my interest family and local history. As a child I loved looking through her photo albums and memorabilia. I can remember looking at her 4th grade report card where the teacher wrote “Needs watching” and thinking “Oh, Mama was bad in school!!!” As a child, I got a kick out of knowing that my mother sometimes got in trouble too.
One of my favorite pictures was of Howard University’s 19th Annual May Festival from May of 1946. My mother was an attendant in the queen’s court and to me she and the other ladies looked like princesses.
My mother would also share her memories of growing up in Washington, DC. As we traveled around the city she would point out landmarks (or where landmarks used to be) and share tidbits of information.
When my mother passed away I wrote an article containing genealogy tips in her memory in my Woodfork Genealogy newsletter. Today is the 3rd anniversary of her death and so I am posting the newsletter to my blog in her memory.
Genealogy Tips in Memory of My Mother
My mother, Dorothy L. Woodfork, passed away on Sunday, November 16th. She had been in a nursing home for four years and had numerous health problems. I watched as her health continued to deteriorate with each passing day. Her passing was not a sad occasion for me because she is finally free and at peace.
With her passing, the number of elders on the maternal side of my family tree has been reduced. My mother was 82 and one of the oldest in her family. Fortunately, she had done an excellent job of preserving her family history. In honor of my mother’s memory, this Woodfork Genealogy Newsletter shares some of the steps she took to preserve our family history.
Document What You Know
My mother had written down all of the family members she could remember in a notebook. After my grandmother’s funeral, the family members had gathered at her house for the repast. My mother passed around the notebook and asked everyone to document their family. This notebook has been a great asset to my genealogy research and I treasure it today.
In 1997, at the age of 71, my mother wrote her memoir. She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper. In it she described her life growing up in Washington, DC from the 1920’s forward. She gave it to my daughter to type. Everyone got busy with life and the document was put on the back burner. In 2004, I started cleaning out her house after she was moved to the nursing home. I remembered the document and resumed work on it again. By this time, my mother’s memory had started to fade because she had dementia, so completing the document was a race against time.
My mother and I worked on the document together through the fall and winter. I had a hard time reading some of her handwriting (she had Parkinson’s disease which made her handwriting small and shaky) and she had a hard time remembering what she had written. But between the two of us, we were able to figure out much of what she had written. I supplemented the information with pictures and other memorabilia she had saved. The result was a document that not only gave great insight into my mother’s life, but also the history of Washington, DC. I made copies of the document and gave one to each of her children and grandchildren as a Christmas present from her in 2004. This would be her last Christmas present to them. On Christmas Day, I brought her from the nursing home to my house for Christmas dinner. She looked on anxiously as my daughters unwrapped their gift and whispered to me, “Do you think they like it?” I assured her they did. My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.
Preserve Family Memorabilia
My mother saved EVERYTHING. She believed that everything could be used again “one day”. When I was cleaning out her out house I found all sorts of stuff. There was a four foot tube full of plastic grocery bags. As I pulled the bags from the tube, I kept thinking that there must be something else in this tube, but it was not. There was a huge box of cardboard boxes of every shape and size you could imagine. There was also a huge container of twine and string. You name it and she probably had saved it.
In addition to all these items, my mother had preserved many family treasures: her report cards from elementary and high school, as well as her college transcript; wedding and funeral programs from every event she had every attended; obituaries that she and my grandmother had saved; birth, marriage and death certificates; every personnel action paper she had been given when she worked for the government. She had photo albums for many, many years, including photo albums that belonged to her father. There were newspaper clippings and notes that she had written that gave insight into her thoughts. The list goes on and on. She had carefully labeled all of the documents and neatly organized them in boxes. My mother’s house was a genealogy gold mine.
I am glad I started cleaning out her house before she passed. The process took me over a year. Since there was no rush, I was able to carefully go through all her belongings (and there were a lot of them) and preserve the necessary items. A lot of family history is lost when people who are not sensitive to the importance of preserving the family history clean out an elderly person’s home. Many genealogy gems are thrown away as “junk” because the person is not mindful of the significance of the documents.
In conclusion, I suggest that you talk to your family members and urge them to preserve their memories. This can be done in many ways, they can write a memoir; you can interview them and preserve the information on audio or video tape. Also, go through their possessions with them and help them organize and preserve family memorabilia. Label all photos and determine the significance of artifacts they have saved. I urge you to take these steps today.
Marion Woodfork Simmons
Woodfork Genealogy LLC
I often get frustrated when tracing my family history because I rarely find anything interesting. “My family history is so boring”, I often complain to my genealogy buddy, Robyn. “Your family history is much more interesting”, I tell her. Robyn just laughs and says, “Girl, you are so silly!!!”
Sometimes when I listen to Robyn talk about her family history, I get a slight case of genealogy envy. One of her family lines is the Holt’s from Hardin County, Tennessee. She is related to Lester Holt who is a news anchor for the weekend edition of NBC’s Today and Nightly News. Her Holt relatives intermarried on two sides of Alex Haley’s family and she is related to his paternal grandmother, Queen. The Haley’s have been a part of her family for awhile and attend the family reunions. Her great great grandfather, John Holt, was the largest black landowner in Hardin County, was the Postmaster, owned a store and had a school named for him (Holtsville).
If that is not enough, another of her family lines is the Waters from Eastern Shore, MD. Several of them were Methodist ministers and the family had been free since 1819. Her paternal grandmother, Pauline Waters Smith, went to Bennett College and served on the Board of Trustees. Her paternal great grandmother was a Prather and was educated at the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, a prominent school that later became Cheyney University and is the oldest historically black college and university (HBCU) in the nation.
And there is even more. Her grandfather (Pauline’s husband) William Smith started a string of successful pharmacies in Jacksonville in the 1940s. The family was well-known and prosperous. They owned a beach house on American Beach – a popular beach for Negroes in Florida during the era of segregation – and were featured in several newspaper articles.
On top of all this she has met numerous new relatives. And almost every new relative she meets shares a ton of pictures and information with her. The room in her house where she does her genealogy research looks like a museum with all the photos of her ancestors!!!
Most family historians would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community. However, for many that will not be the case. Many of our ancestors were just ordinary people who spent their lives working hard to provide their families with the basic necessities of life.
I come from a family of ordinary folks who lived ordinary lives. My family is very private and does not talk much about the family history. There is no oral history that was passed down through the generations. I have a few photos of my grandparents, but nothing for the previous generations. Most of the family history I know I obtained in bits and pieces from relatives and a lot of research.
I have not met anyone who is researching my direct family line. However, I have met a few cousins who are descendants from siblings of my great grandfather, Overton Roy Woodfork. One cousin in Philadelphia had an interest in the family history and had done research. She shared with me a family bible, pictures and other documents that were very helpful. We still talk occasionally. I have met a few other new cousins who have been helpful as well.
One time I thought I had found something interesting, but it fizzled out. I was contacted by the descendant of my ancestors slave owner (Elijah Wiggelsworth) after being featured in a news article about the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC) in Fredericksburg, Virginia. We scheduled a meeting. The meeting was pleasant, but uneventful. The majority of the information the lady had on the Wiggelsworth family was after the Civil War (which was not very helpful to me) and she did not have any information on their slaves.
I plan to read Melvin Collier’s book 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended in which he discusses his journey to locate descendants of his ancestors who were separated during slavery. I believe the book concludes with a discussion of how all the descendants he located got together for a family reunion 150 years after their ancestors had been separated. How exciting!!! Maybe one day I will be so lucky.
My grandfather, Sylvester Roy Woodfork Sr., was a World War I veteran. His funeral program indicates he was a member of a special class of soldiers trained in radio technology at Howard University and that he experienced combat with the Battery F, 351 Field Artillery. I did some research and learned the 351st Field Artillery was one of several units where Negro soldiers were trained as artillery officers.
After obtaining his military records from the National Archives, I learned my grandfather was not in this unit but the 52nd Company 13th Battalion 153rd Depot Brigade in Camp Dix, New Jersey. The records also show he was a private, not an officer. The situation illustrates the importance of performing thorough research.
Many families have family history that has been passed down from generation to generation. In many cases this information has not been verified yet everyone accepts it as a statement of fact. Most family historians would like to uncover exciting information about their family. We would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community or made history in someway or another. The truth of the matter is not every one will be that fortunate. Some of us are the descendants of ordinary folks whose major focus in life was working hard to maintain the basic necessities of life.
As family historians we should not embellish the truth or make up stories to make our family more interesting. We must remember it is our responsibility to have respect for the truth and the whole truth. In cases were the truth is not pretty; there is no need to air the family’s dirty laundry or change the facts to make it better. Just remember the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.
I try to keep the following rules in mind when I am performing research: 1) Just because it is published does not make it true and 2) Just because someone says it does not make it true. We must remember that researching is the systematic process of collecting, analyzing and verifying information in order to establish facts.
A systematic process is repeatable. You can demonstrate how you came to the conclusion again and again. If another person follows the same steps, they will come to the same conclusion.
Collecting, analyzing and verifying information are three very important components of performing research. Collecting is gathering information. Memorabilia, ephemera and artifacts are excellent sources of information. However, after the information is collected it must be analyzed. We must ask ourselves: Does it make sense? Does it seem accurate? Is it from a credible source? Verifying information requires us to locate a primary source and to cross check information against a variety of sources to determine the validity. A lot of people collect information, but they don’t analyze or verify it. All three steps are important.
The end result of research is to establish facts. We must be careful to make a distinction between facts and opinion. A fact is objective information that is verifiable. Opinion is a judgment, view or assessment. It is subjective and is not verifiable
Although it is disappointing when we find information that contradicts well-known family history, we must resist the urge to ignore the truth. It may possible that my grandfather was a member of that special unit in World War I or he may not have been. I have to do more research to determine the facts.